Semiotics is the study of symbols – particularly in a cultural context – that give us much deeper insights into the consumer. Unlike Market Research that presupposes that consumers will be able to tell you why they behave this way or why they like something, the application of a semiotic enquiry helps you identify symbols in culture to understand behaviour.
Semiotics is about understanding how the world of culture works. By analysing symbolism across brands, products, design, communications and popular culture we can uncover amazing new insights.
It is a shortcut to decoding culture and encoding brands. A brand that has done this beautifully, recently, has been the AirTel Money ad. The task of the ad was not only to establish a brand, but it was to establish a new category. A wallet carried in a phone.
The ad was about a young bride who is given money by relatives as a traditional celebration. The brother in the ad is not carrying cash so he sends her money by SMS and then “circles her head with his phone” – the traditional action of ‘nazar utarna’ which is performed with cash. The encoding of the phone as a wallet is achieved brilliantly with one simple action.
Understanding brands through a cultural lens can create new opportunities for brands. Chocolates have been around in India for as long as sliced bread. And yet, the category has remained small till very recently. The brand never tried to find a context to fit into the consumer’s life. By repositioning the brand as a mithai equivalent with a simple line “Kuch mitha ho jaye?”, the brand has seen meteoric growth. Such symbolic encoding of brands to give them a new meaning can build significant market shares.
Like chocolates, flavoured yoghurt has been a very small market in India. This, in a country, where there are Sanskrit shlokas on ‘takram’ or buttermilk and curds is a part of the daily diet across the length and breath of a country. It is my belief that if yoghurt was positioned as the ‘dahi-cheeni’ equivalent as the default after lunch dessert, it would find a far greater acceptance in Indian homes. Perhaps, the semiotic encoding of this could be a spoon of yoghurt before the important exam!
Semiotics helps in encoding brands, but equally, a semiotic enquiry helps us decode categories. A study of the real estate market identifies that pre-ponderance of international names. Casa Rio. Whispering Meadows. Royal Lagoon. Bali Hi. Almost as if the aspiration of every Indian is to live an ‘international’ life and these gated ‘bubbles’ can recreate a foreign ambience. In a category with such clutter, where every real estate ad looks like any other and the projects offer a slice of the world, is there an opportunity for a modern but ‘Indian’ brand. Much like a Taj Hotel vis a vis an Oberoi?
Using semiotic enquiry to understand consumers is also rewarding. Being north and west Indians – the team at DY Works were able to understand the Tamil Nadu market by asking the right questions. The cultural symbols we picked up were the larger than life cut-outs, the over the top melodrama in films, the white shirted man but the wife in silks, wearing gold and flowers, the vibhuti in the morning and the drinking at seedy bards in the evening. If you know what questions to ask, you can get deep insightful understanding of cultures.
To create truly organic brands in the Indian context - that are not mere super impositions of foreign categories – we need to understand the local symbolism. As global markets are homogenised on the supply side, it becomes more and more relevant to understand local markets to reposition global brands.
Multinationals must abandon their cookie cutter approach to make a significant dent in local markets. The symbols of local flavour are incorporated by successful foreign foods such as Maggi Masala or Lays Magic Masala; and are conspicuously absent for small brands such as Quaker Oats.
The old ways of brand building need to be replaced with a culture based technique and a greater adoption and application of semiotics could be a faster, cheaper, enduring way to build strong brands.
The author is Alpana Parida, President, DY Works